Government issues new social distancing advice for preventing coronavirus spread in schools

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Lucie Carlier

Staggering lunch times, preventing parents from gathering at the school gate, and protecting vulnerable staff members are among the social distancing actions schools are being asked to take as they remain open for a minority of pupils.

Guidance on implementing social distancing and limiting the spread of coronavrius in schools has been published by the Department for Education after pressure from trade unions (DfE/PHE, 2020).

It covers vulnerable members of staff, social distancing measures schools can practically take, and the role of parents. The guidance is to be continually updated as more information becomes available.

It comes after the DfE issued general guidance to schools on Sunday (March 22) for how they are expected to operate during the coronavirus pandemic (DfE, 2020; SecEd, 2020).

Since Monday (March 23), UK schools have only been open for the children of key workers, for young people who are vulnerable, and for students with Education, Health and Care Plans (ECHPs).

Many schools have remained opened with much reduced staff numbers. This provision is to be rationalised across local areas as it becomes clear what demand there is from eligible families.

However, there has been concern from teaching and school leadership unions at a lack of expert medical advice on how to ensure that those who are still attending schools do not spread the coronavirus further.

Teachers are particularly conscious that many children still attending school have key worker parents, including those working for the NHS, who would be taken off the frontline should they become infected.

Following meetings between education unions and the DfE this week, new social distancing guidance was published on Tuesday evening (March 24) and will be continually reviewed and updated.

The guidance is clear that staff with any of the published underlying health conditions should not attend school.
It states: “We are strongly advising people, including education staff, with serious underlying health conditions which put them at very high risk of severe illness from coronavirus, to rigorously follow shielding measures (PHE, 2020a) in order to keep themselves safe. Staff in this position must not attend work.”

If a child or staff member lives with someone who is in a vulnerable health group, the advice urges schools to judge on a case-by-case basis. It adds: “If a child lives in a household with someone who is in the most vulnerable health groups, they should only attend an education or childcare setting if stringent social distancing can be adhered to and the child is able to understand and follow those instructions, which may not be the possible for very young children and older children without the capacity to adhere to the instructions on social distancing.

“Settings should allow staff who live with someone in the most vulnerable health groups, to work from home where possible.”

The guidance urges schools to follow Public Health England’s general social distancing advice (PHE, 2020b).

Other practical measures for schools include:

  • Ensuring that children, parents, carers or any visitors, such as suppliers, understand not to visit the setting if they are displaying any symptoms.
  • Considering how children arrive at school and reducing any unnecessary travel on coaches, buses or public transport.
  • Ensuring class sizes reflect the numbers of teaching staff available and are kept as small as possible.
  • Staggering lunch times, break times and the movement of pupils around the school.
  • Avoiding large groups of children gathering.
  • Discouraging parents from gathering at school gates.

The guidance asks schools to communicate with parents and their wider school community to ensure clear understanding of the protocols in place. Parents are also asked to tell their children about the importance of hand-washing and social distancing.

Meanwhile, schools are also asked to increase the cleaning of surfaces in classrooms and toilet blocks.

The guidance adds: “The DfE will work with schools, childcare settings and local authorities to ensure that adequate supplies of personal and domestic cleaning products are available to schools. We will issue further detailed guidance for settings regarding the supply of personal protective equipment to settings that require it.”

The guidance also states that the DfE will “put in place a new process that allows us to reimburse schools for exceptional costs that they face” as a result of the crisis.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said their meetings with education secretary Gavin Williamson had been “constructive”.

He added: “It was an opportunity for us to communicate some of the very real and pressing concerns that we know teachers and school leaders have. It is clear that he and his team are taking on board our questions and concerns.

“On Tuesday night we saw the first iteration of the government’s safety guidance for schools. We expect further and better advice to be issued. We continue to engage with the DfE while it is updated.

“School staff are playing a leading role in the fight against coronavirus and it is right that the government should provide them with the expert medical advice, practical guidance and resources needed to keep themselves and children safe.”

The National Education Union had also called for stronger advice for schools. Speaking on Monday (March 23), joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted has also asked for Covid-19 testing for all education staff.

She added: “No staff should attend school who are vulnerable or would go home to family who are vulnerable. We also need to see coherent rotas for those who continue to go to their place of work.

“Virus testing must be available to schools that remain open. With so many parents on the key worker list, this means an extensive effort is required to make sure every school can access the tests. This is no time for half-measures.”

Elsewhere this week, UCAS has acted to give A level students more time to make decisions about their future study. Normally most students would have until early May to make decisions on their offers, but UCAS chief executive Clare Marchant confirmed that this this deadline will be extended by two weeks.

She said: “Universities and colleges will also have additional time to assess applications and adjust their processes in these unprecedented times. We will email students this week with information on their new May decision deadline, and ensure they understand they have additional time over the coming weeks to make their decisions.

UCAS has said that it expects the admissions cycle to run “broadly similar to previous years”, with the flexibility for applicants to make choices throughout the rest of the year and a Clearing process over the summer.

Meanwhile, the NASUWT has criticised some schools for continuing with redundancy procedures at a time of national crisis. The union’s acting general secretary Chris Keates said it “beggars belief” that some schools were “refusing to withdraw their plans to make teachers redundant and are insisting on ploughing ahead with redundancy meetings and hearings”.

She added: “What kind of employers, in the face of such an unprecedented situation, consider it acceptable or appropriate to add to this stressful situation by seeking to remove (teachers) from their jobs. The NASUWT is pressing for all redundancy procedures to be withdrawn and will have no hesitation in publicly naming those employers who fail to do this.”

And the NAHT has cancelled its annual conference, which had been planned for May 7 to 10. It is considering plans to reschedule the event for the autumn term.

Further information

  • DfE/PHE: Coronavirus (COVID-19): implementing social distancing in education and childcare settings, March 24, 2020a: https://bit.ly/2xpRiFy
  • DfE: Guidance for schools about temporarily closing, March 22, 2020b: https://bit.ly/39ehTma
  • PHE: Guidance on shielding and protecting people defined on medical grounds as extremely vulnerable from COVID-19, March 24, 2020a: https://bit.ly/2vM7PDl
  • PHE: Guidance on social distancing for everyone in the UK, March 23, 2020b: https://bit.ly/2WSW8WT
  • SecEd: Coronavirus: Key messages from latest DfE guidance for schools. March 23, 2020: https://bit.ly/2y42Mz5


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